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Written by Tya Harlan, Children's Librarian, Madisonville Branch 

There's a lot of visionary ideas and nuances of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that have been left out of the mainstream narrative and history textbooks as time has passed. For starters, many don't know he was born Michael Luther King, Jr.

King was born on January 15, 1929, and was the second of three children. When Michael was still young his father, Michael Luther King, Sr. was sent on a trip by Ebenezer Baptist Church to explore Europe. While there, he witnessed the rise of the Nazis in Germany. He also learned more about the Christian church reformer, Martin Luther. Michael was so impressed by what he learned that when he returned home he changed his and his son's name to Martin. 

Martin was an exceedingly smart child. He skipped 9th and 12th (some sources say 11th) grades, beginning college at the age of 15. He attended Morehouse College as well as the Crozer Theological Seminary for three years. His time at the seminary had long-lasting effects on the rest of his life. It was there that he began studying the works of Mohandas Gandhi, the Social Gospel of Walter Rauschenbusch, and began to see the correlation between civil rights and religion.

He set aside thoughts of becoming a doctor or a lawyer and embraced the role of Reverend. He continued his education at Boston University and accepted the position of Reverend of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama in 1954.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a good man. But it's easy to forget that he was a man; human. He married Coretta Scott King and they had four children together. Some in the African American community criticized him for bringing attention, bodies, and ultimately trouble (in the form of increased racial tension and violence against the nonviolent protestors at the hands of law enforcement) to cities, getting the ball rolling to bring national attention to the cause, and then leaving. At the same time the U.S and state governments surveilled him, arrested him, and considered him a public enemy, he also faced criticism by those inside his community who accused him of being more interested in being a “symbol” of the movement than he was in moving the movement forward.

There are reports that he had multiple extramarital affairs. Despite this, Coretta Scott King, a civil rights leader in her own right, fought and stood alongside her husband. After King's assassination, she founded The King Center and campaigned for years to have his birthday memorialized as the national holiday it is today. 

Martin Luther King, Jr. was an extraordinary leader but was just a man. “By exalting the accomplishments of Martin Luther King, Jr. into a legendary tale that is annually told, we fail to recognize his humanity—his personal and public struggles that are similar to yours and mine, said Charles V. Willie, a college classmate of King's. "By idolizing those whom we honor, we fail to realize that we could go and do likewise.” 

King believed that through unity and nonviolence, change was possible for the most marginalized communities. Those communities, particularly Black communities, were the ones that he sought to help integrate. It was his belief that if he could mobilize the poor, like people of color were mobilized in nonviolent marches and peaceful protests against racism, economic equality could also be accomplished.

In the year leading up to his death, King spearheaded the creation of the Poor Peoples Campaign. The goal of the campaign was to bring 3,000 people to march to Washington D.C. to demand change. “I think it is absolutely necessary now to deal massively and militantly with the economic problem," he said. "This is why in SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) we came up with the idea of going to Washington, the seat of government, to dramatize the gulf between promise and fulfillment, to call attention to the gap between the dream and the realities, to make the invisible visible.”

King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, before he could see the last march he planned come to light. However, in May, the people still came. More than 7,000 people set up a “resurrections city”. They wanted to call attention to the fact that over 35 million people lived below the poverty level. They wanted to set up an Economics Bill of Rights.  

The American Friends Service Committee states, “The Poor People’s Campaign asked for the federal government to prioritize helping the poor with a $30 billion anti-poverty package that included a commitment to full employment, a guaranteed annual income measure, and low-income housing”. Resurrection City was another peaceful protest, this one lasting 42 days. Sadly, the goals that the people outlined haven't been accomplished yet. There are many who carry still on the fight today.

In the eleven-year period between 1957 and 1968, King traveled more than six million miles and spoke more than twenty-five hundred times, appearing wherever there was an injustice, protest, and action. He fought for Black liberation, the end of segregation, racial equality, economic equality, spoke out against the Vietnam war, and called out white moderates. He was a husband. He was a father. Don’t worship him. Don’t idolize him. By doing so you are removing him from his humanity. He is a great man who did many great things. And so can you. 

“Be a bush if you can't be a tree. If you can't be a highway, just be a trail. If you can't be a sun, be a star. For it isn't by size that you win or fail. Be the best of whatever you are.” 
—Speech before a group of students at Barratt Junior High School in Philadelphia, October 26, 1967

In honor of the influential, the revolutionary, the inspiring, and the human Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. we've rounded up materials for folks of all ages who want to learn more about him and his mission for justice and equity that we must all continue to fight for today. 

Children's Books


Be a King: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Dream and You by Carol Boston Weatherford

Featuring a dual narrative of the key moments of Dr. King's life alongside a modern class as the students learn about him, Carole Weatherford's poetic text encapsulates the moments that readers today can reenact in their own lives.


The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander

The Newbery Award-winning author of The Crossover pens an ode to Black American triumph and tribulation, with art from a two-time Caldecott Honoree.


A Ride to Remember: A Civil Rights Story by Sharon Langley and Amy Nathan

This book reveals how in the summer of 1963, due to demonstrations and public protests, the Gwynn Oak Amusement Park in Maryland became desegregated and opened to all for the first time. Co-author Sharon Langley was the first African American child to ride the carousel. This was on the same day as Martin Luther King, Jr.’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Langley’s ride to remember demonstrated the possibilities of King’s dream. 


Memphis, Martin. and the Mountaintop: The Sanitation Strike of 1968 by Alice Faye Duncan

This historical fiction picture book presents the story of nine-year-old Lorraine Jackson, who in 1968 witnessed the Memphis sanitation strike--Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s final stand for justice before his assassination--when her father, a sanitation worker, participated in the protest.


Martin Rising: Requiem for a King by Andrea Davis Pinkey and Brian Pinkney

In a rich embroidery of visions, musical cadence, and deep emotion, Andrea and Brian Pinkney convey the final months of Martin Luther King's life -- and of his assassination -- through metaphor, spirituality, and multilayers of meaning.

Teen Books


Dear Martin by Nic Stone

Writing letters to the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., seventeen-year-old college-bound Justyce McAllister struggles to face the reality of race relations today and how they are shaping him.


March - Book One by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin

Congressman John Lewis (GA-5) is an American icon, one of the key figures of the civil rights movement, and a  friend of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His commitment to justice and nonviolence has taken him from an Alabama sharecropper's farm to the halls of Congress. Now, to share his remarkable story with new generations, Lewis presents March, a graphic novel trilogy.


Martin Luther King: Let Freedom Ring by Lewis Helfand 

A graphic novel that examines the life of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., tracing from birth and childhood to his death. He experienced racism and discrimination in the South and experienced integration for the first time upon visiting Hartford, Connecticut in the East while in college. His disdain for racism and segregation inspired him to lead a crusade for racial integration and equality. Dr. King sought economic equality towards the end of his life.


Martin Luther King, Jr: Civil Rights Leader by Kristine Carlson Asselin

Profiles the great civil rights leader, discussing his career as a pastor, his fight for African American rights, and his legacy.


Marching for Freedom: Walk Together Children, Don't You Grow Weary by Elizabeth Partridge

Award-winning author Elizabeth Partridge leads you straight into the chaotic, passionate, and deadly three months of protests that culminated in the landmark march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. Focusing on the courageous children who faced terrifying violence in order to march alongside King, this is an inspiring look at their fight for the vote. Stunningly emotional black-and-white photos accompany the text.

Adult Books 


The Radical King edited and introduced by Cornel West

Every year, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is celebrated as one of the greatest orators in US history, an ambassador for nonviolence who became perhaps the most recognizable leader of the Civil Rights Movement. But after more than forty years, few people appreciate how truly radical he was. Arranged thematically in four parts, The Radical King includes twenty-three selections, curated and introduced by Dr. Cornel West, that illustrate King's revolutionary vision, underscoring his identification with the poor, his unapologetic opposition to the Vietnam War, and his crusade against global imperialism.


The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. edited by Clayborne Carson


Written in his own words, this history-making autobiography is Martin Luther King, Jr.: the mild-mannered, inquisitive child and student who chafed under and eventually rebelled against segregation; the dedicated young minister who continually questioned the depths of his faith and the limits of his wisdom; the loving husband and father who sought to balance his family's needs with those of a growing, nationwide movement; and the reflective, world-famous leader who was fired by a vision of equality for people everywhere.


A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writing and Speeches by Martin Luther King Jr.  edited by James Melvin Washington


The only major one-volume collection of this seminal twentieth-century American prophet's writings, speeches, interviews, and autobiographical reflections. A Testament of Hope contains Martin Luther King, Jr.'s essential thoughts on nonviolence, social policy, integration, Black nationalism, the ethics of love and hope, and more.


My Life, My Legacy by Coretta Scott King


The life story of Coretta Scott King--wife of Martin Luther King Jr., founder of the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change, and singular twentieth-century American civil rights activist--as told fully for the first time to one of her closest friends. 


Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero by Vincent Harding


In these eloquent essays, the noted scholar and activist Vincent Harding reflects on the forgotten legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the meaning of his life today. Many of these reflections are inspired by the ambiguous message surrounding the official celebration of King's birthday. Harding sees a tendency to freeze an image of King from the period of his early leadership of the Civil Rights movement, the period culminating with his famous "I Have a Dream Speech". Harding writes passionately of King's later years when his message and witness became more radical and challenging to the status quo at every level.

Movies and Documentaries 



Selma 
(2014)

Ava DuVernay's award-winning film chronicling Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s historic struggle to secure voting rights for all people. A dangerous and terrifying campaign that culminated with an epic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1964.


King in the Wilderness 
(2018) 

From award-winning director/producer Peter Kunhardt, King in the Wilderness follows Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the volatile last three years of his life, from the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 to his assassination in April 1968. Drawing on revelatory stories from his inner circle of friends, the film provides a clear window into the civil rights leader's character, showing him to be a man with an unshakeable commitment to peaceful protest in the face of an increasingly unstable country.


Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Movement
(1987-1990)

This landmark series, which first premiered in 1987, documents the history of the Civil Rights Movement in America. Produced by Blackside, segments include the Montgomery bus boycott of 1954, school desegregation in 1957 Arkansas, the right-to-vote battle within Mississippi, the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.


I Am Not Your Negro 
(2017)

Master documentary filmmaker Raoul Peck envisions the book James Baldwin never finished. The result is a radical, up-to-the-minute examination of race in America, using Baldwin's original words and a flood of rich archival material. A journey into Black history that connects the past of the Civil Rights Movement to the present of #BlackLivesMatter by examining the lives of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr.


King
(1978)

A dramatic TV mini-series portrayal of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and events of the Civil Rights Movement leading up to his assassination.

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